The names of French pastries and desserts don’t often give a clue as to their ingredients. When I first moved to Europe, to Brussels, I was flummoxed by menus offering delicacies I didn’t know. One of my early lessons with my French tutor was going over the carte des desserts at a café. Here are a few of the less obvious desserts and pastries. The strawberry tarts above are pretty obvious. Most people can guess that a fondant au chocolat is going to be a molten chocolate cake. But a Saint-Honoré? Read on.
I apologize for not having photos of all these. I am trying to avoid sugar, so I snap shots while in the bread line, and the offerings change constantly. I’ll do more of these, if you like, as I collect examples.
Baba au Rhum: A light brioche soaked in a rum syrup and topped with whipped cream. Also called a Savarin. See the recipe here.
Biscuit: A false friend, a French biscuit (bis-cuit means cooked twice) isn’t savory like the anglophone kind but instead a sweet cookie. Beware: tremper son biscuit means having sexual intercourse. I got caught out on this one when explaining my tiramisu recipe at one of my first dinners with the Carnivore’s family. I said, “you dip the cookie”–trempez le biscuit–“in the coffee and amaretto.” A cousin chortled, which was all it took for the entire table to erupt in laughter. “You were saying?” somebody finally managed to squeak out. I resumed, “you dip the cookie…” more laughter, even harder. They got clueless me to repeat it several times, each time sending them into paroxyms of laughter, before somebody took mercy and explained why it was so hilarious.Boudoir: Known to English speakers as lady fingers, these dry cookies also are called biscuits de Reims, after the capital of Champagne. Boudoir means a lady’s elegant but very small private salon (not bedroom! and that word is related to bouder, which is to pout or sulk). The name was chosen by the famous 19th century royal patissier Marie-Antoine Carême (his last name means Lent, which I find hilarious for somebody devoted to desserts), who adapted a recipe from the Medicis for a sturdier cookie that could be dipped in champagne. The reason is either because he was winking at the dangerous liaisons going on or that, like the lady in her boudoir, the cookie is elegant and rounded, and one’s lips round as they envelope it. Erotic either way, especially compared to the old name, biscuit à la cuillère—spoon cookies, because you lay the dough on the baking sheet and turn the cookies using a spoon (but most people use pastry bags). Use boudoirs in tiramisu (see above) or charlotte. Or dip your biscuit in champagne.
Charlotte: a creamy dessert in a mold that’s lined with langues de chat or boudoirs. Carême (him again) took the original version—plum compote enveloped by toasted, buttered bread—and lined his mold with biscuits à la cuillère with Bavarian cheese flavored with fruit. There also are vegetable versions. Charlotte aux fraises, besides being delicious, is the French name for the cartoon character Strawberry Shortcake, though the two desserts have only strawberries in common.
Croquembouche: the name means crunches in your mouth. This is a mountain of little cream puffs that have been covered with caramelized sugar so they stick to each other and also crunch when you bite them. A favorite for weddings. It also can be made with macarons.
Dame Blanche/Dame Noir: Chocolate sundae. The white lady is with vanilla ice cream; the black lady is with chocolate ice cream. Always with whipped cream on top.
Divorcé: Yup, divorced. This involves two cream puffs, one stuffed with chocolate cream, the other with mocha. Each is topped with a fondant in the same flavor as its filling and stuck together with butter cream frosting. Similar to a religieuse, but with two flavors, and side by side. Hence the divorce.
Éclair: Most people know éclairs, the long choux pastry filled with pastry cream and topped with icing. However, did you know the name means lightning? The delicacy was known as pain à la duchesse before 1850. Câreme—yes, him again—decided to improve marketing of the fingerlike treat by calling it éclair, or lightning, because that’s how fast you’ll eat it.Financiers: a little sponge cake/cookie usually rectangular (though in the 17th century they were oval), made with finely chopped almonds or almond powder. They were made by nuns of the Visitadines order in Nancy to use up the egg whites left after the yolks went to make paint; it was a ruse because they weren’t allowed to eat meat. In 1890, the pâtissier Lasne made the cookies more popular. His shop was near the stock market and the delicacies were a favorite with brokers because they didn’t dirty their fingers (as if!). Lasne decided to change the shape to little rectangles that represent gold ingots. They’re nice with coffee.
Fondant or Moelleux? Fondant means melting, whereas moelleux means soft. A fondant is like an almost flour-less brownie. A moelleux is a soft, moist cake. If chocolate, it’s like a typical brownie, with more flour. A mi-cuit or coulant is not cooked all the way through (mi-cuit is half-cooked), so the middle is runny–coulant.
Langue de Chat: flatter and softer than a boudoir, often served with ice cream.
Lunettes de Romans: regional specialty of Romans-sur-Isère: oval butter cookie, with scalloped edges, in two layers, with two round holes in the top layer filled with jam. While lunettes are glasses, the cookie looks more like Venetian carnival mask.Madeleine: little sponge cake/cookies that look like sea-shell-shaped financiers but the recipe is quite different—they use whole eggs, baking powder and orange-flower flavoring. A popular primary school goûter, or afternoon snack. Proust famously dipped this biscuit in his tea, which brought back the flood of memories that constitute À la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, previously known as Remembrances of Things Past.
Mendiant: The name means beggar, and includes some religious orders whose members were to live only from charity. It’s a dry cake (the recipe started with stale bread!) topped with almonds, dried figs, raisins and other nuts. The name is due to the colors of the toppings, which are in the browns, like friars’ robes. You’re likely to see them cookie size, with a coating of chocolate enclosing the cookie base and a layer of chopped nuts and fruits, then topped with whole nuts and fruits.
Merveilleux: Like a macaron but with whipped cream in the middle, and covered with whipped cream. From Belgium.
Napoléon: a mille-feuille, or thousand sheet/leaf. That’s an exaggeration, because it’s three layers of puff pastry, with pastry cream between them, with a white icing decorated with chocolate stripes or marbling. The name possibly comes from the emperor, who took a liking to while warring against Russia in 1812 (he lost), though some posit it was named Napoleon by Russians savoring their sweet victory. Or it might have been an Italian treat (since everybody seems to have had similar layering ideas) known as gâteau napolitaine, for Naples, and just got mispronounced (see pâte à choux). Tip: turn it on its side to eat it. That way you can cut through the layers without making all the cream squeeze out the sides.
Opéra: a layered chocolate-mocha cake, with a base of biscuit Joconde, which is made from beaten egg whites with almond powder, soaked with Grand Marnier or coffee, covered with a layer of ganache (chocolate and cream) and mocha butter cream, then repeated and iced with chocolate. Supposedly it was named in honor of the dancers from the Opéra Garnier in Paris, who would visit the shop of its creator, Cyriaque Gavillon, to eat it. I don’t believe that for one minute.
Paris-Brest: A donut-shaped—or wheel-shaped—choux pastry, cut in half horizontally and stuffed with praline-flavored butter cream, with sliced almonds and powdered sugar on top. It was created in 1920 by Louis Durand in honor of the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race.
Pâte à choux: This means, literally, cabbage dough, though you probably call it cream puff pastry. It seems the original name was pâte à chaud (hot dough) because it gets dried out with heat then rehydrated with eggs. The result is a pastry that puffs up without yeast or baking powder. However, it isn’t clear that chaud became choux as a result of people talking with their mouths full of it. It was invented in 1540 in Italy to make cakes shaped like women’s breasts. In the 18th century, another pâtissier used the dough to make cabbage-shaped buns and the name was changed. Or not. Savory versions include gougères (post to come). Sweet versions are all over this post.
Profiteroles: Speaking of pâte à choux, profiteroles are a decadent assembly of several cream puffs, often filled with ice cream, and topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Kind of a cream puff Dame Blanche.
Punitions: butter cookies. so named by famous baker Lionel Poilâne’s great grandmother as a joke (it means punishments).
Religieuse: Two cream puffs, one larger than the other, stacked snowman-style and glued with butter cream frosting. The filling is pastry cream, usually chocolate or mocha. Each puff is topped with fondant, with a dollop of butter cream on top like a button. The two balls (which are basically éclairs in the round) are supposed to represent a head and a body, and the icing is supposed to remind one of religious robes. Though the treat was created in 1865 by the Parisian café Frascati, the name didn’t appear in the dictionary until 1904 and its origins are murky. One thing is clear: the religieuse is heavenly.
Savarin: a lot like a baba, above.Saint-Honoré: another more-is-more dessert involving cream puffs. This one involves a base of puff pastry, upon which sit a ring of cream puffs that have been dipped in caramel (the better to stick) and whipped cream or crème chiboust, which is pastry cream that’s been lightened with egg whites (meringue, basically). Saint Honoré is the patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs. He died on May 16, 600. His miracles: when he was little he told his baby sitter he wanted to become a priest. She answered, “And you’ll be bishop when my baking paddle sprouts leaves.” Which it did. Flowers, even. Honoré became not only a priest but bishop of Amiens at a young age. He didn’t want to be named bishop, but a shaft of heavenly light shone on him and a mysterious oil was drizzled on his head from above in a divine sign. Another time, during a Mass, the hand of God appeared to give him a communion host. In 1202, a Parisian baker gave up a parcel of land for a chapel in honor of Honoré, in the faubourg, or suburb, that took on the holy man’s name. The construction of the chapel inspired the millers, flour merchants and bakers of the area to adopt Honoré as their patron saint. The suburb was consumed by Paris, but a street there still carries the name and is now the epicenter of the fashion industry.Succès: meringue on top of crème mousseline praliné (pastry cream with extra butter, praline–sugared almond–flavor) on top of a crispy almond cookie, covered with almonds. Like a merveilleux, but praline.
What’s your favorite? Any funny mix-ups to share?